John Kerry Secretary of State Nomination: What it Means for America


On Friday, a senior administration official made the announcement that President Obama would nominate Massachusetts Senator and 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry to be Hillary Clinton's successor as Secretary of State.

The nomination followed the withdrawal of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice from the nomination process. Rice was criticized for statements she made following the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, as well as for her "aggressive personality."

Kerry is considered one of the strongest remaining choices for the position, "noted for the experience, gravitas and relationship-building" which he brings to the role. Notably, he recently traveled to Pakistan following the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, and has traveled the globe on behalf of the United States to bolster the Obama administration's relationship with key foreign leaders.

The only thing we can say with 100% certainty is that Kerry is not using his Secretary of State nomination to build up his resume for president.

So just where is John Kerry on the issues, and what role will he play in an Obama administration?

1. Climate Change: Secretary Kerry would likely make climate change a primary focus of the next four years in international relations. He has already made a reputation as one of the Senate's biggest climate hawks, and supports comprehensive international action to reverse global warming. Much of the chatter around his nomination reflects a debate on his commitment to elevating climate change as a foreign policy priority for this and subsequent administrations. E&E Daily claims Kerry will make this the "banner issue" of his term:

— Kerry would push China to join the U.S. in taking a long-term leadership role on Climate Change.

Should we expect a major reversal of the U.S.' longstanding opposition to signing major climate change and CO2 reduction treaties? Unclear. While Kerry is personally committed to the issue, whether or not American policy undergoes major changes will depend on what amount of time and effort the Obama administration is willing to sink into talks. That is doubtful.

2. War on Drugs: Kerry is slightly more liberal than other members of the Obama team on marijuana legalization, but leans conservative on other drugs. With Rahm Emanuel gone and Hillary Clinton planning on leaving the administration, Kerry may be a good choice to help the president transition to a more relaxed stance on the recent Colorado/Washington marijuana legalization laws, but do not expect him to be an opponent of the Drug War in general:

— Kerry admits to smoking marijuana in the past (come on, he's from Massachusetts).

Kerry as Secretary of State would likely support aggressive overseas action to fight drug trafficking, as well as efforts to shore up Central and Latin American countries' legal systems in pursuit of more effective anti-drug operations. However, there will be no real change to the status quo.

3. Women’s Rights: Kerry is a lifetime social moderate who usually plays to his liberal Massachusetts base on those issues. However, like everything Kerry, he is far from the Senate's most fiery advocate of women's rights, instead taking a safer centre-left position:

—Kerry is a strong supporter of abortion rights. During the Bush years, refused to support the appointment of a Supreme Court justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade while the court was 5-4.

What does this mean for the State Department? Kerry would continue Secretary Clinton's assertive programs to assist women internationally. While Secretary Clinton has continually emphasized women’s' rights in relation to the Arab Spring and establishment of new democracies in the Middle East, Secretary Kerry's record indicates he will likely make this less of a focus of his diplomatic mission.

4. Economy / Fiscal Cliff: Far from his portrayal in the 2004 campaign, Kerry is no socialist but a rather milquetoast welfare-state liberal. Kerry has supported most major Obama administration policies, including the stimulus and Obamacare, and is a relative moderate who plays to Beltway centrists on this issue, supporting the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan (despite its fuzzy math). Again, we see no signs of Kerry leaving safe territory:

— In 2004, Kerry supported raising the minimum wage to $7 (it’s now $7.25). This was such a weak and overdue increase that it enjoyed broad political support: in 2006, President Bush endorsed the increase.

Under Kerry, the U.S. would continue to liaise with organizations such as the International Monetary Fund to assure "confidence" in the U.S.' long-term fiscal stability. A deficit-reduction package signed by a bipartisan committee will doubtless be bragged about to the rest of the world as a model for ending the international financial crisis. He will likely help coordinate efforts to work with international agencies in ending overseas tax loopholes, as well as emphasize that we are getting our fiscal house in order. Kerry will be an excellent pointman in highlighting America's continued financial stability and restoring our international image as a good place to do business. Secretary Kerry will blame continued instability or the inability to finalize a deal on knuckle-dragging Congressional Republicans, minimizing damage to the Obama administration's reputation abroad.

5. Israel: Kerry is one of the most pro-Israel senators. A Kerry nomination for Secretary of State would be a nomination for strengthening the U.S.-Israel partnership. The Senator supports a two-state peace deal, but only if Israel's interests are taken into account foremost:

— After the 2010 raid on a Palestinian aid flotilla, stated that he did not believe Israel was becoming a strategic burden to the United States. Israel "has every right in the world to make certain weapons are not being smuggled in," said Kerry.

Obama selecting Kerry is a clear indication that the U.S.-Israel partnership will continue, and that major concessions to Palestinians are not on the agenda, regardless of the U.N.'s recent recognition of a theoretical Palestinian state.

6. Iran: Like virtually every person in Washington, John Kerry feels that the Iranian nuclear program is a menace to regional stability. However, he is opposed to 'saber rattling' and represents the standard Beltway consensus on Iran:

— Voted against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, siding with Democrats who dubbed it needlessly antagonistic.

7. China: Kerry has a nuanced view of U.S.-Chinese relations, and seems focused on continuing the Obama administration's first-term policy of emphasizing broad commonalities for cooperation and a stable long-term trade relationship.

— Voted in favor of normalizing trade relations with China, but voted against an amendment tying this request to Congressional oversight of human rights issues in that country.

Kerry will continue to engage U.S.-Chinese relations as a cooperative, rather than purely competitive effort.